Saturday, September 17, 2011

Oldies But Goldies: Toronto Heritage Dance Recycles Vintage Works Into Something New

Patricia Beatty
The heads in the audience, for the most part, were gray and nodding as around them swirled pre-show chatter touching on the weather, doctor’s appointments and 25th anniversary reunions. It was definitely an older crowd that gathered inside Toronto’s Winchester Street Theatre (80 Winchester Street) on Thursday night for an evening of dance, an art form notorious for its love affair with youth. Many in the house were ex-dancers whose own leaping days were far behind them. They had come not entirely for nostalgia’s sake, although the event gave reason enough for reminiscing: the program at hand promised an evening of revivals by local dance pioneers as well as the welcome return to the stage of some beloved local dancers, long retired. But more enticing (and worthy of a late night) was that this modern dance show, while celebrating the past, was actually something novel, marking as it did the debut of Toronto Heritage Dance, the new kid on the Canadian dance block with a backpack jammed with history.

The brainchild of veteran dance producer Nenagh Leigh in collaboration with Patricia Beatty, Toronto Heritage Dance aims to use work from the not-so-distant past (the oldest work on the current program is just 40) to jumpstart new creations for the 21st century. The idea, elaborated Leigh during a brief intermission chat, is to get audiences used to the idea of preservation as a means of fostering a re-invigorated dance future. Vintage is all the rage in fashion, film and home decor. So why not apply the trend to locally made dance? 

“This is just the starting point,” said Leigh, adding that funding needs to be secured to ensure the continuation this most valuable project. “We’re hoping it takes off.”

David Earle
Any doubts that the trend might not catch fire with the friends of Terpsichore were instantly dispelled by the standing ovation that greeted Thursday’s premiere performance, even by those supporting themselves on canes.  

There definitely was much to celebrate. In a postmodern dance world where video and spoken word often vies with movement in commanding centre stage at a dance show these days, this was old-school choreography presented as something new: the body was the message. About half of the seven works presented on the 90-minute program continuing through Sunday afternoon were oldies but goldies:  revivals of signature works from the original repertoire of Toronto Dance Theatre, the local modern dance troupe founded in 1968 by Peter Randazzo, David Earle and Beatty. Each founder was represented on the program, with Randazzo, 69, and Earle, 72, reviving three gorgeously lyrical works from the 1970s; and Beatty, 75, presenting something entirely new.

Other world premieres also came courtesy other similarly seasoned Canadian dance artists, among them Danny Grossman, 69, founder of his own self-named Toronto-based dance troupe, and Lawrence Gradus, 75, the founding member of Montreal’s Entre-Six and Ottawa’s Theatre Ballet of Canada. Both men contributed new dramatic works, among the best of their careers. But it was Beatty who stood out with a new dance, The High Heart, set to a haunting score by Arvo Part and featuring a flowing red full-length dress by Kim Fioca, in addition to a long train of red fabric representing the fiery path travelled in a life formed by choices.

The grand dame of the local modern dance scene stole the show with this work, a riveting solo performed by the sublime Danielle Baskerville, a dancer about half the choreographer’s age. It was, hands-down, the evening’s highlight. Beatty’s paean to human dignity and inner strength (old-fashion values, maybe, but worthy still of contemplation if not pursuit) represented the strongest few minutes of original dance creation witnessed in this city in a long time; the crafting of the work and its execution were stunning. At 75 years of age, Beatty is still very much a master at distilling emotion through spare, stripped down but spiritually resonant gestures: old is the new black.

Dancer Danielle Baskerville
An Evening of Chamber Dance, as the program was subtitled, was true to form: a briskly paced line-up consisting of intimate dances performed by a small ensemble of dancers. In addition to the award-winning Baskerville, the performers included Julia Garlissi, Anh Nguyen, Eddie Kastrau, Georgia Simms, Meredith Thompson, Michael Sean Marye, Suzette Sherman and Terrill Maguire dancing in her own solo, Pond Life II, a world premiere set to a scintillating piano score by the late Ann Southam as performed by Christina Petrowska Quilico. In the piece, Maguire, 64, captured the incessant forward-moving drive of life itself through a dance that incubated slowly into form, starting with a twitch of the toes and ending in grand pliĆ©, hands outstretched and undulating with the rippling notes in Southam’s spare but richly evocative score.

Maguire, along with Marye, 48, and Sherman, 59, both ex-TDT dancers, will be familiar to dance lovers of about a generation ago who might remember these senior dancers among the brightest lights of the local independent and modern scene in the 1980s and 1990s. Each has retired from dancing full-time in a professional company. But seeing them again in full action on Thursday night finds them changed from before, for the better: the difference is patina. The passage of time has enriched these dancers, in particular the innately sensual Marye, lending their dancing a heightened sense of emotional depth, daring and dramatic expression.

Danny Grossman
This was particularly true of Kastrau, formerly of The Danny Grossman Dance Company, who danced in two evening premieres. The 49-year old dancer’s body might not be as lithe as it once was, but it’s certainly more dramatically enthralling: a perfectly pitched instrument in the hands of a true artist. Kastrau showed off his marvelous maturity first in Castaway, a solo concept piece by Gradus set to a score by Claude Debussy in which the eponymous survivor of an unknown tragedy at sea is alone on island, still struggling to stay alive. An encircling shark fin (powered by remote control from inside the wings) represents just one of the constant dangers in the waters stretching around him. The character’s tenuous hold on life (and sanity) is symbolized by a large transparent ball which Kastrau clings to (with outstretched arms and or else rolls over, his acrobatic back bends encapsulating the twists-and-turns of fate. When he holds the ball between his legs while lying down on his back, his upper body straining to reach this bubble of hope just beyond his reach, the underlying metaphor of the work is revealed: life itself is a shipwreck survived that some survive more by luck than ability. Call it a senior’s perspective.

An even bleaker point of view is found in Grossman’s remarkable Cut, also performed by Kastrau, this time partnered by Meredith Thompson. The work is black – literally – from the costumes to the subject matter. Set to a compilation score featuring melancholically kinetic music by Ross Edwards and Darren Copeland, as well as moody lighting by Roelof Peter Snipe, the work is like an Ingmar Bergman movie-in-miniature: portrait of a danse macabre. In this expressionist work, Grossman fuses gnarled gesture to frozen poses expressing both horror and confusion over the human condition. The couple at the centre of the banal madness capers at times maniacally, looking like crazed cartoon characters as they speed and limp through the motions of a relationship unravelling at the edges. Except it’s the mind’s grasp of reality that’s crumbling, and fast. It would spoil it to say how this work ends, but know that it ends boldly, and bravely where the choreographer is concerned. This is Grossman’s best work in years.

The program was also bright and sunny in places, notably as a result of Randazzo’s Pavanne, excerpted from his 1977 work, A Simple Melody, set to a score by Maurice Ravel; David Earle’s Baroque Suite Duet dating from 1972 was also uplifting – chests open, palms raised, the spiralling turns shimmering and the diagonal direction of the ever-flowing movement inspiring the mind to release itself to the joy fuelling the dance forward as an expression of ecstasy. Miserere, the 1981 paean to Christian inspiration and iconography that gave the evening its glorious finale, was also vintage Earle: a work whose intertwining bodies spoke deeply to the sense of community that remains this choreographer’s legacy. None of it is out of date or out of style. This is dance that still speaks strongly to today.

Deirdre Kelly is a journalist (The Globe and Mail) and internationally recognized dance critic. She is also the author of the national best-selling memoir, Paris Times Eight (Greystone Books/Douglas & McIntyre). Visit her website for more information,

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